For a generation of Nigerians, the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, remains the true cultural home of Nigerian sport. Built in 1972, it immediately came to be associated with international sporting excellence, hosting as Nigeria topped the medals table at the 1973 All Africa Games.
It was also inside the Main Bowl, with a record crowd of over 80,000, that Nigeria defeated Algeria 3-0 to win a first ever Africa Cup of Nations. Massive attendances such as this meant the Stadium came to assume slaughterhouse overtones.
South Africa, for whom the Super Eagles became something of a bogey team through the years, professed to being petrified, not by the superior size and skill of their Nigeria counterparts, but by the baying, heaving crowd in the stands.
In no other ground in Nigeria, save perhaps Kano, Enugu and Kaduna, can the Nigerian national team boast support of this magnitude and ferocity. Not since 2002, in a 3-0 friendly win over Kenya, has a proper, full-fledged international been played in Surulere.
The similarly-named National Stadium in Abuja was purpose-built for the 2003 All Africa Games, and was for a time the home stadium for the Super Eagles, but its faint air of aloofness and the elitism with which the nation’s capital is associated has prevented it from being properly embraced as home.
In any case, both are linked by a common thread, common in that it is a malaise that extends over the entire country: the absence of a proper framework for maintenance.
Once a source of pride and the temple of Nigerian sporting events, the National Stadium in Lagos has fallen into total disrepair. Abandoned since 2004, its green has become a sand bog, and its running track a strip of utter decay. The stands have been cannibalised, the indoor sports hall only comes alive when Basketball events occasionally light up the dark venue.
Is it a coincidence that its decline has almost perfectly mirrored that of the country itself? It stands now, a monument to a forgotten time, fittingly representing a bygone period of sporting relevance for Nigeria.
However, like a family idol – referred to as ‘Ikenga’ in the Igbo parlance – there has been a need to acknowledge its state of disrepair by successive Sports Ministers down the years. Announcing it as a major point of action has become as empty as absently tossing libation on it in the morning of their tenures; something to do to boost public approval in the early going. That no concrete action follows thereafter is something that has ceased to be surprising.
It would appear though that there is some hope on the horizon. The Lagos State government, under Akinwunmi Ambode, has recently requested and received a concession from the Federal Government to take over the facility, and has begun to talk tough.
Present in a recent inspection tour was Sports Minister Solomon Dalung, and listening to both men talk, the mandate is simple: to return the National Stadium to a place of pride in national sports.
It is a commendable enterprise, but there are questions still that need to be raised, the most obvious being: is it for real this time? For another thing, seeing as politics is so undeniably woven into every facet of government, will the slated refurbishment be sustained in the event the present governor does not earn a second term in office?
What then is the plan for the Teslim Balogun Stadium next door? What prevents this same decay from repeating itself a couple of years down the line?
These are just a few considerations, but the state into which the structure has fallen over the last two decades is something of a cautionary tale. The era of building larger-than-life, outsized stadia as vanity projects is gone. The stadium in Abuja has a capacity of 60,000, but is now slowly deteriorating as well due to misuse and mismanagement.
Similarly, Uyo, constructed at great expense (for no apparent reason whatsoever) opened to much fanfare in 2014 and, now the de facto home of the national team, looks less lush, less swanky with every international game.
Sporting facilities, when built, must now be both sustainable and self-sustaining. As mentioned earlier, few grounds will draw the sort of full-blooded support to justify capacities in excess of 20,000. If a smaller ground is easier to maintain, why play to the gallery with huge ones and leave them to rot?
The intent of the Lagos State Government is indeed admirable. If they can follow through and return the National Stadium to something befitting the name, its resurrection may be more than physical. It may well be symbolic of a change in fortune for Nigerian sports.